Weird Alabama History – Birmingham’s Funeral for a German Emperor

Why did Birmingham hold a funeral for the Emperor of Germany? And why did people fire guns at his coffin? Learn the answers to these questions in this edition of Weird Alabama History.

Why did Birmingham hold a funeral for the emperor of Germany? And why did people fire guns at his coffin?

WW1 in Alabama
Front page from the day the war ended. SOURCE: The Birmingham Ledger/Birmingham Public Library

One-hundred years ago, Birmingham was a young and wild city.

Sharecroppers and tenant farmers, immigrants and roaming miners arrived every day to work in the mines, ironworks and steel mills that dotted the landscape, and their rough manners often were a cause for outrage in the local newspapers. Recalling street celebrations a few days earlier, the Birmingham News complained, “Last Thursday night several persons were severely wounded and a number of nice dresses were burned by powder from blank pistols,” going on to scold readers for cutting telegraph wires with their celebratory bullets.

WW1 in Alabama and Around the World

WW1 in Alabama
Birmingham Boy Scouts help the Red Cross collect money for the wounded. SOURCE: The National Archives

Along with the rest of the world, people in Alabama closely followed news of the war that had engulfed much of the globe. Today we call it World War I, but back then they called it the Great War or even the War to End All Wars. It might be hard to picture this today, but back then, no one had ever seen a war that big, and no one could imagine that there would ever be a bigger one. By 1918, tens of millions had died; the United States had only been in the war for roughly a year and a half and lost more than 100,000 men.

So on the day the war officially ended, November 11th, 1918, cities in the victorious countries erupted in celebration, and Birmingham was no exception. When the time came to throw a party, this wild town celebrated in a wild way.

A Funeral 300 Feet in the Air

WW1 in Alabama
Scenes from Birmingham’s victory parade. SOURCE: The Birmingham News/Birmingham Public Library

It wasn’t enough just to parade an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm, emperor of the opposing German army, through the streets; any old city could do that, and many did. Birmingham had to go a step further. Instead, the city’s upstanding citizens held a mock funeral for Wilhelm on top of the tallest building in town, adorning his casket with stereotypically German food like sausage and limburger cheese, before lowering it down twenty-seven stories to the street with a rope. Not satisfied that the Kaiser had been insulted enough, people leaned out of the building’s windows and shot their pistols at the coffin as it passed. Later, in a parade that drew tens-of-thousands to downtown, a banner over the bullet-ridden coffin proclaimed his fate… “KAISER’S LAST RIDE: HELLBOUND!”

WW1 in Alabama
Anti-German sentiment was widespread. This Birmingham restaurant, perhaps owned by German immigrants, was closed due to public pressure. SOURCE: The National Archives

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History of Birmingham – Sloss Furnaces

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